We always thought that Japan was a very expensive country and so it was. However, we still decided to go there and started our roundtrip through Japan, mainly Honshu Island, in Tokyo. We stayed in the nice ryokan (= Japanese inn) Asakusa Shigetsu which is near the Nakamise market, the Senso-ji temple and Asakusa station.
Tokyo is a very big city and consists of many smaller ones like Asakusa, Shinjuku and Ueno. The traffic is very busy and the buildings very huge. Travelling around by subway or train is easy, since there are many lines and stations.
The Tsukiji fish market is very interesting.
You have to be there very early to see all the action, i.e.
between 5 and 8 o'clock in the morning. We didn't recognize all the different
kinds of fish and seafood, but it was a great experience. Be wary of the
motorised carts; they speed around the market.
Yokohama is nowadays also part of Tokyo. You can easily reach it by train in about 30 minutes. Chinatown is fine, but to us a bit disappointing, though the Kantei-Byo temple is nice.
Travelling throughout Japan is most convenient by train. Trains are fast, comfortable and always on time. There are many private railway companies, but even then it pays off to buy a Japan Rail Pass. You have to buy these passes abroad and have to exchange your voucher in Japan, e.g. in the arrival terminal at Narita airport. Buying a pass in Japan is not possible. With a JR pass you can also use the shinkansen trains (bullet trains) with the exception of the fastest ones, the Nozomi trains.
With our Hakone Freepass and by Romance Car of the Odakyu line we travelled from Shinjuku to Hakone
Yumoto. We had seats on the second row in the observation car and had great
views over the not very spectacular area. The
Fujiya hotel in
Miyanoshita, however, is! It consists of many magnificent and rather old
buildings and its garden is splendid. It is also possible to visit the private
mermaid spa bath. If you have enough money, don't forget to have dinner at the
Kikka-so inn. It is very, very expensive, but delicious and very elegant.
In the Hakone area with your Hakone Freepass you can make a wonderful roundtrip with various different means of transportation. We started with the Tozan train to Gora, then the cable car, the ropeway to the sulphur fields and finally the pirates ship over Lake Ashi. If the weather is very clear you can see Mount Fuji from the top of the ropeway. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy, so we didn't.
On our way to Kyoto we used our Japan Rail passes in Odawara for the first time. A "slow" Kodama shinkansen brought us to Kyoto. From the Tower of Kyoto, but also from our hotel room in the Kyoto Tower hotel we had a splendid view on Kyoto station. It is a very modern building and is very big. In front of it is the bus station, which is very convenient for travelling around the city. Underneath the station you can find a large shopping area.
Our first sight in Kyoto apart from the Tower was the Tenryu-ji temple, one of the many temples in Arashiyama in the north west of Kyoto. There is also the famous bamboo grove at the north gate of the temple. Arashiyama is too big to walk around, but cycling or by taxi is a great way to see a great deal of the temples and the narrow streets.
A bit more to the north east is one of Kyoto's most famous temples, the Golden Temple. It is really beautiful and so is the garden, but it has a large number of steps to climb and to come down again at the end of the round trip. Not so easy for handicapped people like Jaap. But he survived :-)
In Higashiyama and Hanami Kochi, two other Kyoto areas you can find a lot of
small busy streets like Sannen and Ninen Zaka and temples like Kiyomizu Dera.
Ladies wearing the traditional kimono are no exception but can be seen
frequently. If you are lucky you can even see one of the very few geishas left.
Nara was one of the oldest capitals of Japan. From Kyoto regular trains go to Nara in 30-60 minutes depending on the type of train. Most of the famous sights and temples are located in Nara-koen, a huge park in the eastern part of the city. Toda-ji temple has the largest wooden building in the world and is the star attraction in Nara. But also Nigatsu-do and Kasuga Taisha with its many lanterns are worth to see. Unfortunately it started to rain late in the morning and then this temple complex is not the most convenient place to walk around because of the forest and/or gravel paths. Nara-koen is hilly and cycling won't be easy.
Himeji is about one hour by shinkansen from Kyoto and is an easy stop on your way to Okayama or Kurashiki. It is very easy to stow your luggage away at the station in one of the coin lockers. Himeji has the largest old castle in Japan and it is very beautiful with its white walls and black roofs. The six storied donjon is quite a climb but it is worth the trouble to have a spectacular view over the city of Himeji.
After visiting Himeji a Hikari or Kodama shinkansen will bring you to Okayama from where a local train goes to the smaller city of Kurashiki.
Kurashiki and Kibi plain
Kurashiki has a very nice city centre with some small canals and nice white houses with black roofs and tiles. It is about 1 km from the station. Ask for the Bikan area. Here you can also find some museums. Since there are no terraces outside the only possibility to drink a beer or a sake is opposite the large sake shop where there is a little bench.
After many days of seeing large cities it is nice to stay a day in the country. Just a bit of cycling in the Kibi plain. We took a local train from Kurashiki to Soja, hired a bike near the station and cycled through the plain along rice paddies, tombs and temples all the way to Bizen Ichinomiya where we left our bikes at the very tiny station. It is a lovely relaxing signposted 15 km trip over well maintained bicycle paths where cars are not allowed. In Ichinomiya it depends on the time whether it is wiser to take a train to Soja and then to Kurashiki or to Okayama and from there back to Kurashiki. "Ask" the ladies at the bicycle shop in your best Japanese :-).
Shikoku, the second island we visited, was long time a quiet and remote area, but since it has been connected by bridges to the main Honshu island it has become more accessible and busier. Matsuyama is Shikoku's largest city and lies near the west coast. Getting around the city centre is easy because of the large number of trams. One of them even being a very old Germany steam tram. Matsuyama also has a very fine feudal castle and Japan's oldest bath house, Dogo Onsen, to the east of the centre.
Near Dogo Onsen we were very happy to meet these kind and beautiful ladies. Nearby and very close to the shopping arcade and the tram station is a funny clock that will play every hour. Not only music but also puppets are showing up and the clock itself rises to twice its length.
We took a fast ferry from Matsuyama to Hiroshima and were lucky to arrive at the pier five minutes before another ferry brought us to Miyajima. Miyajima is famous for its floating red torii or temple gate. At low tide the torii is standing in the sand and mud, just as the Itsukushima-jinja temple itself. But at high tide both are like floating in the water.
Apart from the floating torii and its temple also the rope way to Mount Misen and the spectacular view from above is worth the trouble and the money. The way to the ropeway has a lot of steps after you have left the free minibus from Iwaso Ryokan.
In August 1945 Hiroshima was one of the two cities that were hit by atomic bombs. The city and its centre were devastated, but one building "survived" the bomb and it nowadays is known as the A-bomb dome, a monument to remind us of this horrible event. The Children's Peace Monument is another overwhelming experience.
We very much liked Shukkei-en garden though it is less famous than Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa. However, we preferred the garden in Hiroshima; in miniature size it shows many different kinds of nature. It has a little tea plantation, a bamboo forest, little bridges and many flowers.
Hiroshima castle was originally constructed in 1589, totally destroyed by the bomb and completely rebuilt in 1958. It is quite near Shukkei-en garden and can easily be combined in one visit.
After a morning of walking around it is nice to have a lovely meal at, yes finally we found one, a terrace near the river where they sell a lovely oyster meal. Hiroshima as well as Miyajima are famous for their seafood and particularly for their oysters.
It is a long trip from Hiroshima to Kanazawa at the west coast of Honshu. First by shinkansen to Shin-Osaka and then by limited express train to Kanazawa. It takes about 5 hours. To visit many places in the city centre we took one of the loop busses. It brought us to the Omi-cho market where again a lot of fish is sold.
Thereafter the bus brought us to Higashi Chaya, an old geisha district where we visited the Sakuda Gold Leaf factory. The tea here is served with flecks of gold leaf and even the wall of the toilets are covered with gold and platinum. At the former Shima geisha house you can get an impression of a geishas' life.
A couple of bus stops further is the famous Kenroku-en garden opposite Kanazawa castle. Kenroku-en is the main attraction of Kanazawa and it is visited by many people. In particular the small lantern is photographed by everyone, so by us too :-)
For the coming days no more use of trains and of our Japan Rail passes. From Kanazawa we took a bus through the Japanese Alps to Shirakawa-go, in the mountainous district between Kanazawa and Takayama. The road starts as a 4 lane highway, but soon becomes a 2 lane road with many, many tunnels. Even at the end of May there was still snow on the top of the mountains.
Shirakawa-go is known for its old Gassho style farmhouses. Some of them are now operating as guesthouses for the people who like to spend the night over here. The English speaking lady at the tourist office helped us so we could stay in one of them, Shimizu guesthouse. A nice Japanese room with separate living room and bathroom, all for the two of us. Other houses function as a museum e.g. the Kanda house.
From the village a pedestrian bridge leads to the tourist office and the bus station. From there a shuttle bus goes up and down to and from the viewpoint from where you have a great view over the village.
Takayama & Matsumoto
Through many and very, very long tunnels up to 11 km! the bus took us to Takayama. The old centre Sanmachi has many old wooden houses and the old Government House originally built in 1615.
Hida-no-Sato is Takayama's open-air museum. It has dozens of traditional houses, dismantled at their original sites and rebuilt here. A discount ticket can be bought at the station and combines the return bus fare and admission to the park.
The road to Matsumoto has even more tunnels than we went through before and the road is sometimes very narrow. In the tunnels it is hard for the busses to pass especially in bends. Out in the daylight again the bus passes huge dams and lakes and fast flooding rivers. Unfortunately it was a very rainy day which made the trip gloomy and a bit dangerous.
Matsumoto has a large and fine castle with a wide moat and a nice garden. However, at a rainy day as we had it is difficult to walk in the garden, but a visit to the castle is a good option. Be prepared for very narrow and steep stairs which you have to climb bare foot.
The train connection between Matsumoto and Nikko is not easy. First we took a local train to Nagano, then the Asama shinkansen to Omiya, the Yamabiko shinkansen to Utsunomiya and finally a slow local train to Nikko. We left Matsumoto at 10.05 hours and arrived in Nikko at 14.14 hours. And in Omiya we only had 8 minutes to change trains, but that isn't a problem in Japan where all (fast) trains are always on time. It was quite a trip, but one of the easiest ways to go. If you make the trip from Tokyo Nikko can best be reached via the private Tobu-Nikko line from Asakusa station. With a JR pass you can go by shinkansen from Tokyo Shinjuku to Utsunomiya and change there to a local train.
Nikko is a long stretched village with many hotels and hostels. It is common to have your meals at your hotel and restaurants in the village often only cater at lunch time or early dinner time. Many of them close at 18.00 o'clock. So if you like to have dinner somewhere, go early or rush.
Nikko was a sacred site from the 8th century and has many temples. The most important one is Tosho-gu temple. The walk around starts at Rinno-Ji temple and garden and goes uphill along many temples all the way to Ieyasu's mausoleum.
The sacred red bridge is right in the centre of Nikko where you can also start your temple walk. And if you like to go to a real onsen, take a bus to e.g. Chuzenji and make a brief stop on your way there at Akechi-daira to see the Kegon falls. On the way back you won't go there again. Both ways are one-way roads.
After our 4-days' visit to Nikko we went back to Tokyo by Tobu line to Asakusa and spent another 1 1/2 day there. The private Keisei Skyliner train brought us back to Narita airport from where we flew back to Amsterdam after four lovely weeks of holiday.